Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - cover image

The Theme of Revenge in Hamlet: Sample Essays

Two young men journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on his brother Claudius becomes the revenge of old King Fortinbras on old King Hamlet.

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Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

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Introduction

Hamlet contains two revenge stories, the second triggered by the first halfway through. At the play’s end, an accidental swapping of swords between the two duellers Laertes and Hamlet is followed by a genuine exchange of forgiveness.

Their deadly duel reverses the outcome of another fought thirty years before, as Young Fortinbras from rival Norway succeeds to Denmark’s vacant throne.

Hamlet is a warning both against revenge and against revenge plays. For the cycle of vengeance begins with the title character staging a play about revenge (“a knavish piece of work … writ in choice Italian”, 3.2) that so enrages him with blind fury he kills the wrong man (“Dead for a ducat”, 3.4). In so doing, Prince Hamlet succeeded only in creating another revenge-obsessed son, Laertes, like himself.

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#Hamlet dies naming as king a prince who is more like his father King Hamlet than he ever was.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet’s is driven by three subplots centered on the legacies of three dead fathers to their sons.
  • Young Fortinbras’ legacy was gambled and lost by his father to Prince Hamlet’s father, on the day the prince was born.
  • Hamlet’s legacy is stolen by his uncle King Claudius’ secret murder of old King Hamlet.
  • Laertes’ legacy is jeopardized by his father Polonius’ unrecorded (“hugger-mugger”, 4.5) death and burial.
  • Denmark’s crown passes to a figure old King Hamlet would have admired: a reckless territory-grabber who would risk his and other’s lives over “a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (4.4).

Key Supporting Quotes

13
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Hamlet and his ghost-father: “Thy dread command“

We, the audience, hear Claudius’ confession (“O heavy burden!”, 3.1). But what if, like Hamlet, we had not? What would we do? Lacking certain knowledge, no amount of “thinking too precisely on th’ event” (4.4) helps Hamlet, a man of reason, to reason his way to a solution. He “cudgels” his “brains” (5.1) in vain.

More generally, Hamlet’s dilemma is between acceptance and action: should we endure our world of “slings and arrows” as it is (“To be”). Or risk everything including our lives by taking on “a sea of troubles” and seek to change the world for the better? (“not to be”, 3.1).

For Christians, vengeance belongs only to God, but as Hamlet later asks Horatio, might a Christian not also “in perfect conscience!” take a life to prevent “further evil!” (5.2)?

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#Hamlet: The prince swears an oath only to "remember" his father's Ghost, not to avenge him.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet does not promise to avenge the Ghost, only never to forget him: “Now to my word. / It is ’Adieu, adieu. Remember me.’ / I have sworn’t” (1.5).
  • “Where is thy father?” (2.2). Had Ophelia asked the same question of Hamlet as he does of her, would his answer have been any less dishonest?
  • Trapped between feelings of inadequacy in this world (“Am I a coward”, 2.2) and fear of damnation in the next, the tormented Hamlet is “from himself be ta’en away” (5.2).
  • Hamlet takes refuge in a put-on “antic disposition” (1.5) that reflects Claudius’ false act of kingship, and that both hides and expresses the prince’s inner turmoil.

Key Supporting Quotes

28
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Hamlet and his aunt-mother: “Up, sword … My mother stays”

It is not Claudius’ guilt but Hamlet’s secret knowledge of his father’s death and the threat he poses to the king that is revealed by The Mousetrap with its murderous figure of the nephew Lucianus.

In the chapel and closet scenes, Hamlet’s aim becomes clear: to reunite in the afterlife his fractured family of mother and father. Hence his desire to rescue Gertrude’s soul (“Confess yourself to heaven”, 3.4) before he condemns his uncle’s (“as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes”, 3.3).

Ironically, Hamlet’s wish to damn Claudius’ soul saves the life of the apparently praying king. And his blind stabbing of Polonius only creates a second vengeful son. Like Laertes in the final scene (“as a woodcock to mine own springe”, 5.2), Hamlet is caught in his own ‘Mousetrap’.

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King Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed. Prince #Hamlet by the murder he hasn't.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Claudius is too good an actor to be exposed by the Players’ performance. It is Hamlet’s antic banter and threat on his life (“nephew to the king”, 3.3) that sends him fleeing the play.
  • King Claudius gained and holds his throne through deception. Now a rare moment of authenticity, of genuine repentence-seeking in his private chapel, saves his life: “Help, angels” (3.3).
  • The Ghost who appears minutes later in Gertrude’s closet to Hamlet (“to whet thy almost blunted purpose”, 3.4) does not show himself in the chapel, suggesting he is indeed a “goblin damned” (1.4).

Key Supporting Quotes

23
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Laertes: “I’ll be your foil”

The Ghost’s revelations sent Hamlet retreating inward into untrusting isolation. Polonius’ bereaved son instead reaches outward to lead a rebellious, castle-storming mob against the king.

However, the contrast between Laertes and Hamlet is not between action and delay but between reason and passion. The prince evaded Claudius’ offer to “think of us / As of a father” (1.2). In his unthinking rage, Laertes submits to the king’s invitation: “Will you be ruled by me?” (4.7).

Hamlet reflected that “conscience does make cowards of us all” (3.1). Laertes consigns conscience “to the profoundest pit” (4.5). Hamlet knows how a man may tremble in “the dread of something after death” (3.1). Laertes dares “damnation” (4.5).

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Laertes, the avenger #Hamlet created, is also the man who pardons the prince.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Laertes’ words of “a noble father lost, / A sister driven into desperate terms” (4.7) echo Hamlet’s appraisal of his own situation: “a father killed, a mother stained” (4.4).
  • “Was your father dear to you?” (4.7). Claudius’ question of a grieving Laertes is just as manipulative as old King Hamlet’s emotional blackmailing of his son: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love …” (1.5).
  • Laertes too is delayed: first by Gertrude (“But not by him.”, 4.5); then by Claudius (“I pray you, go with me.”, 4.5); and later, at his sister’s funeral, by the king, queen, Horatio and the prince himself (“Hold off thy hand”, 5.1).
  • Cunningly, Claudius sets the two sons of murdered fathers against each other in the rigged fencing match of the final scene.

Key Supporting Quotes

27
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Young Fortinbras: “Lands lost by his father”

No one delays longer than Fortinbras. Thirty years lapse before he makes his move against Denmark, and then when his father’s killer is himself dead.

Elsinore’s guards unhesitatingly swear an oath with Hamlet on the prince’s sword before departing in a soldier-like band of brothers: “come, let's go together” (1.5). Laertes’ inspiring passion is capable of moving an unarmed crowd to rebellion.

In contrast, Fortinbras’ only followers are hired mercenaries (“lawless resolutes”, 1.2) and, later, soldiers directed to do by his uncle. His Polish adventure one of his own captains dismisses as a purposeless quest for “a little patch of ground” (4.4).

Fortinbras’ good fortune was to be in the right place and time when Denmark’s royal family of Hamlet self-destructed.

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In #Hamlet, no one delays longer than the land-grabbing opportunist, Young Fortinbras.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Both Hamlet and Young Fortinbras share their dead fathers’ names and are princes in countries ruled by their uncle kings. But their motivations could not be more different.
  • Fortinbras never speaks of revenge; nor does any other character describe him as an avenger.
  • Fortinbras is an opportunist who is stirred to action by the death of Hamlet’s father rather than his own, suspecting Denmark “to be disjoint and out of frame” (1.2).
  • That his uncle can so easily bribe him into attacking Poland is proof that what drives Fortinbras is the prospect of land and military glory.

Key Supporting Quotes

18
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion: “Exchange forgiveness with me”

Despite the nobles’ cry of “Treason” (5.2), the prince strikes his villainous uncle: with the poisoned sword (for his own death) and poisoned wine goblet (for this mother’s). It is more public execution than private vengeance. The ending brings not just comeuppance but forgiveness too: Laertes, the avenger Hamlet’s desire for revenge created, is also the man who pardons the prince.

As for old King Hamlet (“Alas, poor Ghost”, 1.5), by surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son perhaps the prince has granted his “dear father” (2.2) something more than revenge: forgiveness for his land-grabbing, “Extorted treasure in the womb of earth” (1.1) sins committed “in his days of nature” (1.5)—and with it escape from his suffering in the “sulfurous and tormenting flames” (1.5) of purgatory.

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#Hamlet grants his father not the revenge he demanded but the atonement his suffering soul needed more.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Laertes exposes Claudius’ villainy (“The king’s to blame”, 5.2) and his offered exchange of forgiveness finally ends the cycle of vengeful violence.
  • Old King Fortinbras’ son does more than recover lands lost by his father three decades before; he succeeds to Denmark’s throne.
  • Prince Hamlet ends the play as King Hamlet began it: as a ghost, neither dead nor alive, fearing his life will be forgotten and story untold: “Remember me” (1.5), asked the father; “Report me and my cause aright” (5.2), says the son.
  • Has villainy been “justly served” by “providence” (5.2), or has the ending been just another turn of the “wheel” of “fortune” (2.2) of which the Players spoke?

Key Supporting Quotes

27
quotations from the play to support your statements.